Mindfulness v. Reactivity: 3 Ways To Deescalate Yourself In A Stressful Situation

When an unexpected and stressful situation occurs, I am the furthest thing from zen.

In fact, I'm inclined to panic when problems occur.

And every time I freak out, the situation devolves into something worse.

When I'm in a problematic situation, I am the antithesis of mindful. I am completely reactive. And when I'm reactive, the cycle perpetuates.

For instance, last week I came home toting 5 bags in hand. One of which was a grocery bag that contained 3 packages of frozen veggie burgers that I had, unintentionally, left out overnight in the car. If I would have been mindful, I would have realized I was already defining the situation: I am in a hurry.

Once I unlocked the door, I quickly realized my dog had gotten sick all over the living room carpet. If I would have paused and observed my emotions here, I would have realized I was now aggravated.

Later that afternoon, I reached for my keys to grab something out of the car. When I realized they were missing, another mini panic ensued. I searched for over an hour but to no avail. My mind suddenly reached for the most far-fetched conclusions: my keys must be stolen.

Of course, eventually I did find my keys. They were in the freezer (obviously), inside the grocery bag with my veggie burgers. I realized later on that I probably could have prevented the entire situation by simply staying present.

Discomfort and stress breed reactivity.

You end up entering a "cognitive tunnel" that escalates the situation and causes you to make bad decisions.

Cognitive tunnels occur when your mind goes on autopilot. You may be driving along the same route to work, surfing Instagram, or just flitting from task to task. Basically, cognitive tunnels occur when our attention is unfocused. Then, an "emergency" happens-- you get an unexpected email, your kid is sick, you remember a deadline-- and suddenly, you are acting reactively. You're in the cognitive tunnel.

Next time your in the midst of stress, focus on these three things:mindful or mind full

  1. Stay mindful. Notice what is happening. Be sensitive to details to prevent tunnel vision. Awareness is essential to the following the next two steps. Fair warning: staying mindful during an "emergency" is not an easy task.
  2. Narrate the situation. Describe to yourself what you're seeing, what you're feeling, and what it means.  It's okay to feel panic. It's okay to feel the impulse to react. Narrate the event as though it were a movie rather than taking on the starring role in a drama.
  3. Visualize what you'd like to happen next. Play out the scene in your head. What outcome do you desire? What steps can you make to get there?

Practicing these steps can actually help train your brain for the next "mini-emergency". For instance, mindfulness is much easier to practice when we are relaxed which is why we try it in yoga. Then, when you encounter stress, you can utilize mindful awareness.

Similarly, narration and visualization or "mental modeling" helps us take control of our attention. When you’re driving to work, force yourself to envision your day. What types of interactions are you having? What are working on? How do you feel during your day? Are you mindful when problems arise?

Using Mental Models

Before teaching a yoga class, I used to write copious planning notes on index cards. It was helpful whenever I'd lose my place during class. I could simply look back at my notecard to see what pose was next. However, after making over 100 notecards, keeping them organized became frustrating.

One day, an hour before class, I scribbled down my plans on my trusty index card. When I went to dig out my plans before the start of class, I noticed the notecard was missing (pretty much the theme of my life). Nevertheless, the class had to go on. I began teaching without my notes and realized-- I didn't need them! The simple act of visualizing and writing down helped me remember the sequence without relying on any notes.

I was using a mental model to memorize my plans.

This method has worked so well for me that I continue to use mental models when I plan for classes. While I'm driving to a class; I visualize the sequence of poses in my head, the breathing exercises, and even the meditation at the end of class. 

When you visualize and narrate, you are essentially practicing being in the moment. Just as athletes are encouraged to visualize themselves winning before the start of a game or race, you can apply this same concept to your daily life.

The situation may not occur exactly as you envisioned, but remember to stay present. Be with your thoughts, sensations, and emotions. And even during an unexpected event, continue to ask yourself: Am I being mindful? 

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